As John Deere is to Midwestern fields, as Q-tips are to ears, so is Ken Takakura to the portrayal of gruff Japanese masculinity. Mainstream moviegoers first knew his mug from dozens of yakuza films, made beginning in the 1950s. Art-house audiences may have lagged in their appreciation, but they too came to love him, if only from seeing the hipster Takeshi Kitano imitate, and send up, Takakura’s silent, brooding manner. I’ve read that Takakura extended his popularity westward when China, emerging from the Cultural Revolution, chose one of his pictures to be its first movie import in years. But it didn’t occur to me, until I saw Zhang Yimou’s Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles, that Takakura might have loomed as a father figure to some of China’s Fifth Generation of filmmakers. In 1976 a movie starring Takakura reintroduced China to an image of the wider world, and to a popular Asian cinema. Only two years later, Zhang and his classmates entered the newly reopened Beijing Film Academy and began training for their own bid at international recognition.
Zhang succeeded so brilliantly at making himself an auteur that he, too, became a celebrity. So when a sharp Hong Kong producer, Bill Kong, helps to pair Zhang with his “childhood idol” Takakura, in a story that sends the Japanese star adventuring through present-day China, the words “crossover marketing” float into mind. Yes, comrades–the dynamo that drives the cinema is economic! But sometimes, when the right movie people come together, a blatantly commercial decision actually strengthens the artistic impulse, as you can see from Zhang’s filial treatment of Takakura in Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles.
I will dispense with the setup briefly, since Zhang does, too. In Riding Alone Takakura plays the rough-hewn Takata, a provincial widower who lives alone in a fishing village and has been estranged for many years from his grown son, Ken-ichi. Why are the father and son estranged? Zou Jingzhi’s screenplay deliberately leaves the question open, as if to signal that this film, which is otherwise so detailed, wants the situation of Takata/Takakura to be just-so. It’s enough for the character-star to have an excuse to go to Tokyo–he’s learned that Ken-ichi is in the hospital, seriously ill–and then on to China on behalf of his son. It seems that Ken-ichi, who teaches at a university, is an expert on Chinese folk opera and was supposed to travel to Yunnan to videotape a local performer singing the mask opera Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles. Now, without telling the incapacitated Ken-ichi of his intentions (since Ken-ichi won’t talk to him), the father decides to go in his place. He undertakes this quixotic, just-so mission despite the impediments of speaking no Chinese, knowing nothing about folk opera, having no previous experience with video equipment and (in his own spare words) being “not good with people.”
In brief, Takakura once more gets to be lonely, silent, stubborn and righteous. As elemental as the rocks on the fishing village’s shoreline, his Takata effortlessly conveys probity to everyone he meets in China. These strangers may become exasperated with him–he keeps asking for the impossible–but they sense that this tough old man in the cloth cap and windbreaker is hurt in some way, which they can’t bear to witness. Or, to be more precise: They do want to watch, and so do you, because it’s awe-inspiring to see this father figure force several sentences out of himself, confessing his pain, and then play peekaboo behind a cloth, concealing and revealing tears that Ken Takakura should not shed. In lesser star turns, the performer and the character merge. In this great star turn, Takakura unites two audiences: the people watching him within the movie, and the ones watching him in the movie house.
Zhang, too, performs a star turn of sorts in Riding Alone, directing the kind of story that has become familiar to his fans. It’s the tale of a single, headstrong person pursuing a near-unattainable goal through the landscape, and bureaucracy, of provincial China. In the first and most astonishing of these films, The Story of Qiu Ju, the protagonist was a pregnant housewife from a rural village. She sought justice on her travels, but instead discovered and enjoyed a new freedom. In Not One Less, the protagonist was an angry teenage schoolteacher, scarcely older than her impoverished pupils. She went out to seek a missing boy and instead discovered responsibility, and a sense of her own competence. Riding Alone is different in that the protagonist is elderly, male and foreign; but it holds to the formula by sending him on several wild-goose chases, which ultimately lead somewhere unexpected. Takata, who seeks reconciliation with Ken-ichi, ends up bonding with another man’s son.
There is great liveliness along the way, with Takata meeting, exasperating and endearing himself to a succession of interpreters, officials and townsfolk; and there is much humor, some of it casual and naturalistic and some verging on the absurd. (The climactic scene features a thumping, caterwauling prison band and a chorus line of uniformed inmates, performing beneath a disco ball that is evidently the warden’s proudest possession.) And, as always with Zhang’s films, there is stunning beauty. You expect his pictures to look good; but the very first shot by cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding takes your breath away, showing you Takata silhouetted against silvery clouds and a shimmering, pounding, blue-gray ocean. The screaming gulls that tear through this image might almost be your everyday senses, flying away because they won’t be needed for the next 108 minutes. All the other shots will be equally gorgeous, as Takata moves from a shining but monochromatic Japanese seascape to the richly colored villages and dizzying mountains of Yunnan.
What he finds there, in addition to beauty, is hospitality, extended everywhere but expressed best by the people of Stone Village, who lay out banquet tables for him in the middle of the street, lined up as far as the eye can see. It’s as if Zhang, acting on behalf of the Chinese people, were welcoming Takakura as both a father and a star. Zhang and the people entertain him, too. The script has Takata/Takakura coming to China with the intention of shooting a movie; but at the end, through a neat reversal, he becomes a spectator more than a filmmaker, while Zhang’s countrymen put on the show.
There was no need for this closing scene to incorporate any of the opera Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles. The screen could have gone black as the long-deferred performance began. But Zhang would not cheat you of these moments. Economics drives the movie business, yes; but generosity is the theme of Zhang’s Riding Alone, and the method, too.
As clumsily constructed as its title, Hollywoodland drags its slow length back and forth between a pair of narrative lines, one based on a true story (kind of), the other concocted out of two young filmmakers’ memories of Chinatown.
The first line, which runs through a decade’s events, concerns the life of actor George Reeves: his love affair with Toni Mannix, wife of MGM general manager Eddie Mannix; his unexpected and humiliating success, playing Superman on television; and his sudden death, apparently by his own hand, in 1959. The film’s second line, which begins immediately after Reeves’s death, concerns a fictitious private investigator named Louis Simo, who lives and works out of a cheap motel room, employs his girlfriend as a secretary and dines off of other people’s plates at coffee shops. Like better movie gumshoes before him, Simo is sure to have his nose flattened and conscience aroused by the end of the picture. The occasion for both: his snooping into the possibility that Reeves was murdered.
I was 8 years old when Superman died, and as devoted a fan as Reeves ever had; so if there’s a larger meaning to be had from this story, I was ready to receive it. And yet, watching Hollywoodland, I kept asking: What is the point? If this film is an exercise in style, then I think first-time screenwriter Paul Bernbaum does not yet know how to cut back and forth with any grace, nor does first-time director Allen Coulter (a veteran of episodic television) yet know how to tell a story that runs longer than an hour. If the film is an opportunity for the actors to shine, then I think Adrien Brody can furrow his forehead and pull down his eyebrows with as much wiseass sensitivity as anyone since James Dean, but he can’t do much else with Simo’s character as written. I also worry that Ben Affleck, impersonating an actor who found his natural level as Superman, may suffer from having found his own natural level as George Reeves.
Is the point, then, the old, reliable one, that Hollywoodland is Tinseltown? No again. The film does give you a dose of the hypocrisy and corruption, the quick money and easy sex, that are so intrinsic to legends of Los Angeles (not to mention New York, Washington, Chicago and Peyton Place). Yet Hollywoodland ultimately focuses not on excesses but on limits. Reeves must understand that he will never have a great career; and Simo must see that he isn’t a beatnik Mike Hammer, and so ought to put on a white shirt and tie and take care of his son.
The characters are disappointed men. The movie, like them, is a well-meaning mediocrity.
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Because it will be impossible in many places for Kirby Dick to advertise his new documentary, to book it into theaters or to dump it into bins as a DVD, I feel I ought to promote the picture. So: Please make an effort to see This Film Is Not Yet Rated, a very funny, frequently infuriating, and (of course) unrated exposé of the film rating board of the Motion Picture Association of America.
If you follow the movies at all, you will know that MPAA is the lobbying organization for the six major studios, which are now units of companies that control some 90 percent of the media in the United States. In 1968 the organization instituted its ratings system so that “people could make decisions about…what movies were appropriate for their children.” (This, in MPAA’s own language.) Ratings are given by an in-house board that operates anonymously and is notorious for its biases: It is lenient toward violence and studio productions, stringent toward sex and independent productions and noticeably squeamish about homosexuality. Filmmakers are free to disregard this secret group of big-media representatives, but the costs of noncompliance are high (see above).
This is real Hollywood corruption. And Kirby Dick blows the lid off of it with the help of a real Hollywood private eye, who happens to be a nice, middle-aged lesbian mom. You will laugh; you will growl. And you will learn what MPAA doesn’t want you to know: the names.